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The Future of Libraries, Masud Khokhar

Masud Khokhar is the University Librarian and Keeper of the Brotherton Collection at the University of Leeds. A computer scientist by education, and with libraries in his DNA, Masud is passionate about digital leadership and innovation in the changing library and archive environments. His core interests include strategic development, digital transformation, open research, and inclusive leadership. Masud is also the Vice-Chair of Research Libraries UK (RLUK) and a firm supporter of championing and embedding diversity in our thinking and practice within libraries and collections.

We talk to Masud about the connection of libraries to Muslim heritage, how libraries shape identity and culture and the future possibilities for libraries with the development of technology.

Were libraries a part of your childhood experience and how did they shape your appreciation for books and knowledge?

Libraries run in my DNA. My father was the Director General of the National Library of Pakistan, pretty much the highest position you can get in the libraries in Pakistan. Growing up, I used to love reading Urdu fiction. I remember going to the Model Children Library in Islamabad and borrowing detective novels by Ishtiaq Ahmed, they would be between 400-600 pages long and I would read them in one day if not in one sitting. As the youngest of five siblings, my father was hoping that I would follow in his footsteps and pursue librarianship as a career. He took me to the national library as a teenager to inspire me by showing the extensive research collections in stacks. I was remarkably bored in response. I chose computer science as my academic discipline, thinking it would be as far away as possible from books.

What I didn’t realise at that time was how important that period of my life was to build a sense of curiosity, creativity, imagination, and empowerment. Books give you that channel to be whoever you want to be, to immerse yourselves in another world, to let your imagination run wild, and to embark on a creative journey that is yours to explore and enjoy. That phase of my life also developed a sense of life-long learning and a growth mindset, which to this date guides me and excites me about knowledge.

Masud at the Library of Congress


Can you share with us your vision for promoting digital and diversity in the library and information sector?

I came to the UK to do my PhD in Computer Science. I studied at the University of Birmingham in my first year, and I remember going to the libraries (academic and public) there and relishing in the wealth of information available physically and digitally. Then I moved to Oxford to continue my DPhil and needed to find part time work. I naturally gravitated towards libraries and started as a bookshelver and information assistant. The libraries I explored and worked at were modern, friendly, and thriving with knowledge and disciplinary expertise. At the same time, I also realised that there was a lack of digital knowledge in libraries, and it made me move into a career in libraries with a focus on embedding digital and innovation thinking in the libraries.

In my eyes, the library powers the University. The library cuts across all key ambitions of the University: research, learning, civic engagement, student experience, and more. This makes the position of the library unique, a microcosm of the University. Even with this centrality, we still feel understated in our own importance, in our own expertise, in our own ambition. My vision is to reposition libraries to take leadership, especially in digital transformation. Quite often people think of digital transformation as embracing new technologies. Technology is important, but digital transformation is more about experiences and people. Libraries are naturally excellent at providing inclusive and caring experiences, while building people.

This also takes me to the point of diversity in libraries. When I moved into the libraries sector in the UK, there were not many role models that looked like me, either from a minoritised ethnic background or from a Muslim background. I remember several encounters where people didn’t even believe that I was the University Librarian. The UK sector is approximately 96% White, and there are even fewer people at senior levels from minoritised backgrounds. As far as I know, I was the first person from a non-White background to become a University Librarian in a Russell Group University in the UK, a fact I am proud of, but a stark reality of how far we still need to go. Thus, I am passionate about promoting diversity in libraries and allowing people from all backgrounds to believe that they can be in senior leadership positions.

Library of Congress


Can you speak to the role of technology and innovation in libraries today and how you see these trends evolving in the future?

Technology has always played an important role in the libraries. From adoption of online chat tools to RFID systems, from building world class infrastructures for digital discovery to using data and analytics to improve users’ experience, libraries have been involved in digital transformation from an early stage. It has mostly been a reactive transformation though, often instigated by significant shifts in the technology or user expectations. I would like libraries to take a forward-thinking approach towards digital transformation, to experiment and prototype more, to have a go at new technologies, to fail fast and fail often, and to continuously learn and innovate.

Some of the areas where libraries can do this experimentation is in the XR domain (such as implications of VR/AR on exploration of cultural collections and heritage), in the AI domain (information authenticity, ownership, citizen rights, authentic and inclusive assessment, academic integrity), in the quantum domain (information privacy), in digital reunification domain (to bring collections, places, communities and knowledge together), in personalised experiences domain (by using analytics with thick data and UX approaches and to adapt services). These are some of the broad areas that I think would be of high importance to libraries in the next 10-15 years. I also see a broader skillset working in the libraries, such as software engineers, data scientists, XR developers, and ethics managers to name a few.

Houses of Parliament Library


How do you see libraries in the Muslim world addressing the challenges and opportunities of the digital age and the increasing demand for online resources and services?

Knowledge acquisition and reading is critical in Islam. The very first word that was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (SAW) from Allah (SWT) was Iqra, which means “To read”. According to Hadith of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), acquiring knowledge is obligatory on every Muslim. As the world becomes more digital, the channels through which we acquire, build, share, and preserve knowledge have fundamentally shifted to digital.

Digital brings a unique opportunity to unify knowledge scattered across the globe. There have been many initiatives around this, from within the Muslim world and across the globe. An excellent example of this is the Qatar Digital Library, which provides a free online portal providing access to digital copies of geographically scattered collections of archives and manuscripts relating to Gulf history and Arabic sciences. Fihrist is a UK libraries initiative to provide a union catalogue of manuscripts from the Islamicate world.

The opportunity that is often missed is how technology and the wealth of Islamic knowledge can intersect to produce new knowledge. This is where digital research techniques, digital humanities, medical humanities, and intersection of digital and collections is critical. An area of personal interest to me is the role of Artificial Intelligence and Quantum Computing on information authenticity, discovery, production, and preservation. We have already started seeing moments of punctuated equilibrium with Generative AI and Large Language Model powered applications such as ChatGPT, Bard, or Llama. These applications will fundamentally shift information production and consumption. We have a golden opportunity here for libraries across the globe and in the Muslim world to take a pro-active leadership role in this digital transformation.

Brotherton Library Main Reading Room


Can you discuss the role of libraries in preserving and promoting Islamic cultural heritage and traditions?

I am so pleased that you mentioned both heritage and traditions. For me, heritage is not just about the buildings or physical artefacts; it is also the way of life, the traditions, and the evolving social memory. I often think of the Bayt-al-Hikmah or Dar-al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom) as a historic model from which we can learn a lot. Usually in the Bayt-al-Hikmah, writers, translators, scientists, authors, and eminent figures will come from across the globe to the library to advance scholarship. The house will also contain curators and conservators who were preserving rare books, poetry, and other important texts. At that time, the primary aim of Bayt-al-Hikmah was to expand on knowledge that existed elsewhere and to translate it from different languages.

Things are a bit different today. The key task is to curate the vast amount of information to provide useful knowledge. Libraries sit at the heart of advancing curatorial practices for development of scholarship.

To preserve and promote Islamic cultural heritage and traditions, libraries need to take a multi-faceted approach, working with scholars, architects, historians, organisations, governments, and communities. For promotion, libraries can build more fellowships that focus on Islamic culture and heritage to advance scholarship. For preservation, libraries can focus on oral, visual, 3D and VR projects that capture the landscape, heritage, evolving traditions and changing societies of the Muslim world (particularly those which are in danger of destruction or erosion). To sustain the digital assets, the libraries need to build capacity to be able to preserve these digital assets, stories, and experiences.

For more structural promotion activity that libraries can embody, we need to build more partnerships within and beyond the Muslim world to engage in research and engagement projects focusing on Islamic culture and heritage. Physical and digital exhibitions can also help engage audiences with Islamic culture and history at regional, national, and global levels.

You wrote about recalibrating the importance of knowledge in higher education institutions. Can you speak to how this can be achieved?

The world today is overloaded with information, with facts, alternative facts, opinions, ideas, free speech, hate speech, and highly polarised, often uninformed views. The cognitive overhead is significant, drastic and for many, life altering. What worries me though is that amid this information burden, the importance and authenticity of knowledge seems to have diminished. Knowledge requires a deeper, critical, and meaningful understanding of the information around us, along with its source(s), content, and context. Knowledge curation and management is a skill that we have stopped prioritising. This is an important time for higher education institutions to revive the investment in knowledge economies and to develop effective and equitable knowledge societies.

Knowledge development and management is fundamental to higher education institutions. Tertiary education environments have always provided the pathways for critical analysis and understanding of information, including the pervasive influences of localised knowledge systems and the means to diversify such knowledge systems to broaden thinking. Curation and expansion of knowledge has been a critical mission for many institutions, best illustrated by my own institution, University of Leeds motto of Et Augebitur Scientia (And knowledge will be increased).

So, what has changed? As I previously mentioned, there has been a significant impact of digital on knowledge management. For sustainable digital transformation in education, we need to have our knowledge infrastructures well designed and developed. We need to have a clear plan on how learning pedagogies and social constructs will translate effectively in our physical and digital spaces. We need to have well defined and systemic digital skills development embedded in our structures and reward mechanisms. We need to recognise that global knowledge systems are critically important to solve global challenges and build knowledge equity initiatives. I am personally very proud that University of Leeds is establishing a global Knowledge Equity Network to deal with the challenges and complexities that the society is facing now and, in the future, and that the libraries are at the core of this initiative.

Library of Congress


Can you give us a glimpse into your future goals and how you plan to continue to promote a culture of digital innovation and diverse thinking in the library and information sector?

Sure. One of the key things I want to achieve for the University of Leeds Libraries (and hopefully for the wider library sector) is to reinvigorate the position of libraries as critical infrastructures, for the institution and for the communities we serve. For me, this infrastructure spans across social, knowledge, and innovation areas. I have written a more detailed article on this and have captured the essence of these aims in our Libraries vision for 2030 called Knowledge for All.

At a sectoral level, I am the incoming chair of Research Libraries UK (RLUK). RLUK has committed to advancing digital shift and EDI in its strategy. RLUK launched its Digital Shift Manifesto in 2020, following which it established an open and global series of talks under the brand of Digital Shift Forum (DSF). DSF has had global coverage, including representation from the Muslim world such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia. In commitment to EDI, RLUK has partnered with several other UK organisations to scope the development of an emerging leaders programme, focusing on future leaders in library and cultural sector from a minoritised ethnic background. In addition, RLUK has opened debates on inclusivity of collections through a new series of talks called Inclusive Collections, Inclusive Libraries.

At a more personal level, one of my goals is to expand my own horizons further about the libraries in the Muslim world. I have had the pleasure of experiencing amazing libraries in Europe, USA, and Europe, but not many in the global south or in the Islamic World. I would like to change that, develop a broader understanding of the challenges and opportunities that are in front of us, and work at a global level to solve challenges that impact on all of us.

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